Week three of ALU Summer Book Club has us in the lucky position to ask author Shani Mootoo all of our burning readerly questions about her irresistibly readable novel
Polar Vortex (Book*hug Press). Read on for our interview with Shani about identity and intersections, art and influences, Priya and Alex, and more. Plus, hear Shani read from her novel, below.
Get 15% off
Polar Vortex until August 31 with promo code ALUBOOKCLUB!
All Lit Up: Congratulations the publication of your new novel! We loved Polar Vortex and found there was a lot to unpack, especially around identity and queerness, themes you tend to visit in your work. In Polar Vortex you take on these themes — and more specifically, the intersection between Priya’s identities as a queer, South Asian woman. Can you tell us what these themes mean to you? How has your writing on them evolved in your career?
Shani Mootoo: First, I’d like to say thank you very much for reading Polar Vortex and paying it the close attention indicated in your questions. What ends up being a novel usually starts out as a flicker of a picture in my head, or some small moment that begs to be fleshed out. I usually continue writing because I simply like the image forming. Eventually, though, something may happen and I follow that until something else happens and I follow that, too. It turns out that without me dwelling on the basics you call themes, they are there, embedded in what is on the road, now, to becoming a novel. What I’m saying is that what are called themes are essential parts of my life and the world I live in. I grew up in a world, and at a time, when much of that world has been troubled by the existence of people like me. I want to say that ongoing opposition to one’s self can either weaken one, or make one dig in, and become more defiantly that self. I imagine that like me, writers like, say Sarah Selecky or Margaret Atwood, writing at the intersection of whiteness and heterosexuality are simply writing from their home identities, their home base, which, as part of the mainstream, are expected and unremarked upon. Without me meaning for this to happen, it turns out that my work exposes aspects of race and sexuality to readers who see their own stories, their own race and sexuality reflected on the pages of a book, and that pleases them. And my work also introduces ways and issues to readers for whom such intersections, ordinary to me and to numerous others like myself, are not the "norm" and are worth remaking upon. Both of these please me; the conversations that arise all around are among the most important and necessary topics for our times. To answer the second part of your question, mainstream awareness regarding non-white race and queered sexuality is growing and deepening in ways I had never experienced before, and this makes it easier to write stories in which people like me don’t have to make excuses or lay out cases for our rights to live and love as we’d like. In turn, this relative ease with the self in the world, allows me to concentrate on one of the things in my life that I very much love, and that is the act and art and craft of writing.
ALU: When you were working on your novel, were there any books or films that influenced your writing?
SM: Not specifically or consciously. But I can say that between the writing of Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab and Polar Vortex I had read Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Novels and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and I remember feeling as if for the first time in a long time I was seeing in literary works deep truths being revealed about uncomfortable aspects of human nature and life, and all precisely because of the brilliance behind the unreliability of the protagonists. The works struck a chord. But during the writing of Polar Vortex I cannot say I consciously called upon these works.
ALU: Alex and Priya are a couple who has grown apart and no longer communicates with each other. Even though the novel is mostly told from Priya’s perspective, you dedicate one chapter to Alex. What was the motivation behind this?
SM: I began writing in Priya’s voice, and hadn’t imagined the narration otherwise. My decision to add Alex’s voice was originally more about writing craft than anything else. Priya’s inconsistent and unreliable narration began to get on my nerves. I felt that I, the writer, needed a break from her duplicity. Imagine, then, I thought, how might a reader feel! But after adding Alex’s steadier, more reasoning voice, I began to realize that this served a bigger purpose, and the novel’s direction changed—for the better. The story was opened up, became bigger. It allowed Alex to have secrets of her own, a canvas of her own. And allowed me to talk about relationships, rather than about an individual who happened to be in one.
ALU: Were there any paths you considered for the novel that might have led to different outcomes for the relationships between your characters? Any paths by which Priya and Prakash could have just maintained a friendship? Or a path by which Priya and Alex could have overcome their distance?
SM: The question supposes, I think, a different way of writing. I don’t start out writing with a story in mind, a story I feel I must tell. Rather, it is often a voice, or an image that nags me. I keep that image or that voice on a loose leash and allow it to run ahead of me. I follow to see where it wants to take me. It is only after it has led me down a road, and I see its particular path and a destination—really unknown to me at the outset—that I go back and try to make that path, and the destination clearer. I don’t try and change it. I have long seen that the subconscious desire in writing is, for me, more knowledgeable, wiser than the conscious part. If this conscious part butts in too early the work feels false. This conscious part is necessary, but only near the end, after I’ve seen what the subconscious is trying to do, and that’s when “I” step in and do the craft part.
ALU: What does the title Polar Vortex mean to you?
SM: A few years ago, here in Ontario we experienced a frightening ice storm. Power went out for days, weeks in some areas—no heat, no hot water, in the depths of an abysmally cold winter, no electricity for cooking—we weren’t able to leave our homes because of the thick sheets of ice on the ground. We really did lose a great many songbirds and other wild animals, and a great many trees were lost to the weight of the ice. It felt to me as if it was a sign, that we, people, were not taking climate change seriously, and this ice storm was showing us what that lack of care could bring about. It was so with Priya and Alex. The signs were there, but they didn’t pay attention until it was too late.
ALU: Like Priya, we know you, too, have a Fine Arts BFA from Western and that you established yourself first through the practice of painting. Are the things that inspire (or inspired) your work as a painter the same things that now inspire your writing, or are they different?
SM: I am very much inspired by nature and landscape, and these are themes that run through my painting, photography and poetry writing. It seems that in fiction writing I am drawn to stories that explore why we love who we love, and how experience throughout our lives shapes us. Although in writing I rely on my visual sense a great deal, my stores seem an attempt to find the heart of behaviour, while the visual arts are a literal rendering of what’s in front of me.
ALU: What’s a book you recently read that you would recommend?
SM: I strongly recommend Stéphane Larue’s The Dishwasher.
Shani reads from Polar Vortex
* * *
Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and lives in Canada. She holds an MA in English from the University of Guelph, writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Mootoo's critically acclaimed novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki?s Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night. She is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Award from the Lambda Literary Awards. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and the Booker Prize. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
All Lit Up is produced by the Literary Press Group and LitDistCo. LPG and LitDistCo acknowledge the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council.
All views expressed by bloggers and contributors to the All Lit Up blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of All Lit Up or the Literary Press Group.
All Lit Up acknowledges we are hosted on the lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat. We also recognize the enduring presence of all First Nations, Métis and the Inuit people, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to meet and work on this territory.